How to Say Goodbye in the Desert
Updated: Nov 30, 2021
The last time I had seen my grandparents in person was sometime around 2009. Prior to that, our interactions were spotty, scattered. My parents, brother, and I lived on the bottom corner of California, while they resided in the middle of New Mexico. Not exactly a trek, though not a stone’s throw either. Fiercely independent and strangely busy for an elderly couple, my grandparents seemed satisfied with the life they’d cultivated in the desert. Always pleased to see or hear from us, but never the type to excessively ooh and awe over their grandkids. As a young, shier child, this relationship actually worked quite well for me. With prompting from my parents to call to say thank you for a present or card with a check inside, it would typically be my grandfather rushing me off the phone, not the other way around.
I want to begin by saying I am not a stranger to death’s dark shadow. I’ve bid farewell to family members, friends, and beloved pets from hospital beds, church pews, the cold floor of a vet’s office, and my bathroom as I tearfully flushed little Swimmy down the toilet. I’ve often been told I’d make a pretty good vet; I’ve somehow found an equilibrium between sugary sincerity and stone-cold logic. So as I jostled in my seat flying over the southwest winds to see my grandparents for perhaps the last time, I knew that whatever would befall me during my trip, I could handle. My grandparents are 94 and 89, respectively. They will not magically turn around.
Or will they? I had received a call about three weeks prior that my dear grandparents (who still live at home, have no full-time caretaker, with a small dog trotting around) had both fallen, and laid tragically on the floor until my aunt came by and found them. Rushed to the hospital with the intent to assess and then move them into assisted living, it seemed that my very special, very old grandparents were headed towards the end. Truth be told, my mom had been preparing us for this for as long as I can remember. I recall sitting on the floor playing board games while my mother let the landline go to voicemail. “Maybe I should answer it next time,” she mused. “You know, my parents...they’re so old...who knows how much longer they have.”
So I panic-booked a flight, hoping I wouldn’t arrive to a storm of chaos between my mom and her sisters, or weeping nurses, or worse. Ironically, just a few days before I arrived, against doctor’s orders, my grandfather checked himself out of the hospital and insisted on being taken home. I was told that he instructed most of the hospital staff to “fuck off” before exiting. My grandmother, who had previously been struggling with her memory, had taken to drinking lots of water and somehow seemed better than ever. I want to be clear here: my grandparents are not senile, cranky, hunched over old people types. I will try to paint a picture.
My grandfather, Bill, is a class clown. He has stories for every occasion. He’s a gambler, a veteran, an author, an actor. He has sparkling blue eyes and a wicked sense of humor. Up until about four years ago, he was still working (hosting his own radio show), and in the process of crafting three novels, one in particular about his favorite historical figure: Billy the Kid. My grandfather and I are both Geminis - moody, lively, insatiable. Any time I’d call my grandfather to regale him with my stories about life in the city, he’d encourage me to do more. Get a Master’s, he’d say. Get a Ph.D. Keep going. And then he’d rush me off the phone. I had a tendency to exaggerate when I was younger. I still do. My boyfriend calls me a fisherman. My catches get bigger and wilder with each retelling. Most people find this annoying. My grandfather loves it.
My grandmother Bette is petite and sweet and shy. She often sits with her hands in her lap, tentatively listening, smiling at all the right moments. She loves animals. She wears fashionable oversized sunglasses. She doesn’t like to be a bother. She sometimes tells me stories about hopping on the train to Chicago and getting served fancy drinks underage at the bar. She’ll look at pictures of her younger self and say, “look how adorable I was!”. She is not wrong.
I want to know these two people better, but I am running out of time. My grandparents have been married for 70 years. The part of me that wants to say, “yes, but...a different time...” or some other gripe about women’s liberation and divorce revelations are immediately put to bed when I see them together. My grandma holds my grandfather’s hand when he tells her something. She looks him in his eyes. She listens. I sense a hint of jealously from my grandpa’s corner of the room as my mother retells the story of Bob Newhart flirting with my grandmother many years ago. They are cute. They do love each other. I am lucky to see it.
So when I opened the door to my grandparent’s home, the place my grandfather was dead-set (no pun intended) on getting back to, there they were. Frail, smaller, older, but the same. There is a hospital bed in the living room now. My grandfather has an oxygen tank. My grandmother is mobile but more comfortable when she sits or lays down. She has a little water bottle with mermaids on it that I refill frequently. Their small dog named Rosie lounges on the floor.
My paternal grandmother, Margie, with whom I was extremely close, passed away from lung cancer when I was about eleven. She got sick quickly and left us even quicker; I was young and unsure how to navigate such a big thing. I confessed to my parents that I can’t remember her anymore: her voice, her laugh, our conversations, what she smelled like. I understand that these next few days in the desert are for making and storing memories.
My grandfather asks me about Chicago, a city he loves. He says he wishes he could be a little ghost on my shoulder while I make my way around. They repeat questions sometimes, they can’t always hear me. But I am patient, I am kind. I try to answer the same questions in new ways. I speak slower, sometimes louder. My grandfather instructs me to print out some of his stories, we read them together. If I share a particularly good sentence, we catch each other’s eyes and smile. He hasn’t gone anywhere.
I sense a busyness buzzing beneath the skin of my mom and her sisters, who have been caring for my grandparents for a while now. They want to be helpful. They are stern but comforting. My grandpa continues to wave them away, unbothered. He will occasionally bark orders but is polite and gracious when he gets what he wants. My grandma usually shrugs and laughs.
The doctor’s instructions are for my grandfather to be fed intravenously, but he loves food so much. My mom reads him menus and we break up some rich chocolate brownies into small pieces so he can enjoy them. I hate to cook but I make soup. We are bending the rules a bit; my grandfather has done that his whole life. He taught us how.
Though they have never met, my grandfather asks me questions about my boyfriend, Chris. He calls him “the historian”, as he likes that Chris is studying history with the goal of becoming a teacher. It seems silly to ask about your granddaughter’s boyfriend at this point, but I sense that he does it because he loves love. And he knows that I do, too.
My grandmother carries over a photo album that probably weighs as much as she does now; we flip through the pages and she tells me all about each picture. Sometimes she grabs my hand or shoulder if a moment is funny or sweet or strong. I ask her about certain outfits (clothes have always been a strong route to memory for me), and she is bright and full of light as she tells me about her prom dress. “It was very modest, not sexy,” she explains. She asks me what my prom dress was like and I am flattered by the gesture. “It was blue, it was kind of sexy,” I admit.
My grandparents start giving us their belongings: books, jewelry, bolo ties for my brother, who accepts them with his eyes on the floor. It is strange to witness this, the giving away of meaningful things. It is a unique acceptance. Old-time country music plays on the TV, and every time a new song starts, my grandfather shouts out the artist. He is never wrong, not once.
Despite our distance and sporadic visits, I always truly felt that my grandfather was the one who really saw me, really understood me. He believed me to be smart and funny. He sensed my need to constantly be moving and doing. A creative writing professor once told me that the greatest compliment a writer can receive is for someone to say: “and then what happened?”. My grandfather says this to me often. We are always telling stories, bringing people in.
I am 31 years old, and I have been rushing through most of my life. My grandfather once told me that I reminded him of a wild pony, never stopping, just running towards the horizon as fast as my legs will take me. I believe he meant this as a compliment, but as I stir soup in the kitchen, taking my time, I grant myself the gentle grace of patience. Time is precious here, I am allowing it to be.
Life is so mysterious and strange. My paternal grandparents left me so long ago that I rely on pictures of them to assure me they were real. Here, my maternal grandparents, much closer to 100 years of age than not, laugh and remember and tell me they love me. My mother mentions later that on rougher days, my grandfather will exclaim that he could die tomorrow. On better ones, he believes to have 4-5 more years left in him. Spending time here, I sense that either could be true, really. I sit on the corner of his bed while we talk about books and writing, he tells me he is nearly finished with one of his novels in progress. “You have time,” I say stupidly. “Not much of it,” he says with a smile.
“Do you like what I’ve done with the place?” my grandma jokes to my younger brother, who is now being presented with my grandfather’s belt buckles. “I put a bed in the living room, I thought the oxygen tank looked nice.” We laugh. “It looks great,” my brother says. We are both surprised by and proud of her ability to have fun.
Have you ever been to New Mexico? It’s an interesting place. Everything is tan and square and turquoise. You might spot wild horses on a drive. There is a dry, sensitive slowness in this wide-open space. People are kind, they wave and ask you if you’re visiting, where you’re from. They are proud of the Native American history, the Spanish history, the New Mexico chili peppers. Every building, plant, and animal has a story. I do not fit in here, my restless city brain does not understand. My mom presents me with a bracelet of my grandmother’s. It is silver with turquoise stones. “It’s not simple and gold and thin like you like,” she explains. “But this is New Mexico jewelry.” I thank her and slip it around my wrist. It feels heavy and important.
The time comes to say goodbye, I must catch my flight home. I shake my grandfather’s hand because it’s easier on his body. My grandmother stands and hugs me, lingers long in it, and I let her. I make it out the door without crying, and I pat myself on the back for doing so. The front seat of my mother’s car is where I do cry, and though no one is expecting me to explain myself, I search for the why. The story behind my feelings.
It is unlikely (but not impossible) that I will have kids of my own. I sense my family getting smaller - we are all spread out now, we are moving so fast. The potential vet in me has spent years developing a strong sense of safekeeping; I typically distance myself from hugs, from overly emotional discussions. Ever since I was young I’ve looked for reassurance in what is real and what is not. For whatever reason, this makes me feel safe. I do not play pretend, I look for answers. I want to be focused on reality, what is probable. I sense this is why I appreciate my grandfather’s adoration of my fisherman tales. For when I do stretch the truth, imagine a bit, I am letting my guard down.
So what I have done for the past few days in the desert is this: I have moved slowly, made memories, repeated myself, allowed kindness. My grandparents’ stories are not mine to tell, but I hold onto them. I find spaces where I can become a part of their long, rich, fascinating lives. I witness their daughters figuring out ways to forgive them (because we are always trying to figure out how to forgive our parents), where to let go, where to lean in. My job, I’ve discovered, is to simply be here, which is new to me. My presence has always felt more like some type of natural disaster: a rumbling from below that encourages those around to seek shelter. Misunderstood. But for these days alone, I am the rolling hills of the desert. I am quiet, calm. There is space to roam.
How do you say goodbye here? What comes next? I offer a request to be patient, understanding. To listen, perhaps sit a bit closer than you’re used to. Look for an opportunity to say, “and then what happened?” Ask for what you want, and be gracious when you get it. Tell everyone you love that you love them and startle yourself by how much you mean it. And eat what you want, because food can be so delicious. So can life.
Thank you, I love you, goodbye.